Spit and Polish Comes to Chicago Schools

By Ann Therese Palmer

When Victor Robinson was applying to high schools two years ago, his mother, Martha, told him about a new public high school--Chicago Military Academy--opening on the city's near-South Side. He was skeptical.

"When you think about the military, you think about how they get yelled at," says Robinson, who was a C student in math and English, with average achievement test scores, in elementary school. "I don't like getting yelled at. I also didn't want to wear the uniform all of the time."

Robinson's not skeptical any more. In fact, the 16-year-old is battalion commander of the 264 students at the school, the nation's first public high school completely devoted to Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). It's an appointive position based on faculty recommendation and grades. Robinson, who now boasts scores of A in math and B in English, is responsible for supervising morning drills.

"This school has changed my life," says Robinson. "It's more structured and disciplined. I've learned how to organize myself better. I've learned how to be ahead of the game."

RICH MIXTURE. Bronzeville Academy, as locals call it, is situated at 35th Street and Giles Avenue in the Old 8th Regiment (Bronzeville) Armory, just south of Chicago's Loop. It's in a three-story yellow brick armory which has been the focal point of this predominantly African American neighborhood since 1915. This is a neighborhood in transition: the 46-block corridor from State Street to Lake Michigan contains $300,000 houses bought for as little as $3,000 five years ago by young working folk lured by the area's five-minute El ride to downtown. Alongside the armory stands an eight-tower public housing project called Stateway Gardens. Some 39% of the neighborhood's adults are unemployed. Crime--down 20% this year--is still a problem, and robberies and arsons are on the upswing. About 85% of the academy's students are economically disadvantaged. "This school was really needed in this neighborhood," says Dempsey J. Travis, a local real-estate company president. "The environment [the students] live in doesn't lend itself to discipline."

Bronzeville Academy is one of the Chicago Public Schools' latest military education programs. The district operates 16 middle and 43 secondary school military programs--more than any other district nationwide--and plans more. "I've always liked the military model of instruction," says Chicago public schools CEO and Superintendent Paul G. Vallas, a former senior instructor at the Illinois National Guard's Officer Candidate School. "This type of education provides children with the kind of character-building, discipline, and leadership opportunities in a structured environment that they can't get elsewhere."

Vallas also became a devotee of military-type education because of research showing that these schools are among the top-performing schools nationwide. And it's certainly true that Bronzeville is head of the class locally. On the 2001 Test of Academic Performance, 56% of its students scored at or above national reading norms, compared with 15% at Dunbar High School, five blocks away.

TEAM TEACHING. The school is the brainchild of three men: Vallas; Democratic Congressman Bobby L. Rush, in whose district it is located; and Dr. Frank C. Bacon Jr., the school's superintendent and commanding officer.

"This type of education is very important," says Rush, who lives directly behind the armory and, while drinking his morning coffee, regularly watches the students march. "They've got to learn discipline. It teaches them how to learn to take orders without being personally offended by them, because it's for the good of the team."

The idea for the Bronzeville Complex began in the early 1980s. A group of neighborhood residents contacted Rush, then the neighborhood's City Council alderman, about saving the armory. "The armory was the first building of its kind built in an African American community in the U.S. at a time when African American troops trained in vacant fields or stables," says Travis, who wrote a book on the armory. It also housed the nation's first African American-commanded infantry unit.

But by 1984, the roof had fallen in. Trees were growing through the parade floor. Demolition was rumored to be in the cards. The building lay vacant until 1995, when Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed a task force, including Vallas. Daley visited the site while taking his two young sons to a White Sox ballgame at nearby Comiskey Park. "Putting a military academy in the Armory looked like a good fit," he says. "It was a way to really do justice to the great tradition established there."

Getting $24 million to rebuild the 11,000-square-meter building (everything is new except the original exterior walls) and start the school involved as much tactical strategy as a military campaign. In 1996, Chicago Public Schools bought the armory for $255,000. The city, state, local corporations, and charities contributed $10 million.

"The opportunity to be part of revitalizing a community, as well as helping it grow through its students, was something you couldn't walk away from," says Joset B. Wright. Now retired, she was president of Ameritech Illinois when it donated $1.2 million. Because Bronzeville is located in a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, the school was also eligible for $14 million in bond financing.

The hope--as yet unfulfilled--is that the skills learned at Bronzeville will rub off on the area. The curriculum, specifically designed for the school, emphasizes leadership. "If we can teach leadership--getting someone to do what they ordinarily wouldn't do and be happy about it--to these kids before they graduate, they won't have to learn it in entry-level jobs," says Bacon, a Bronzeville-raised African American and a former brigadier general in the Army. "They'll be the equivalent of college graduates because they'll understand human behavior."

BETTER JOBS? Military training may also boost job prospects after graduation, says William S. Cohen, a U.S. Defense Secretary under Bill Clinton, who attended the school's 1999 dedication. "I consider the school to be an important initiative to impress upon younger people the job opportunities that await them in the U.S. military after they graduate," he says.

Parade-ground drilling is important for academic success, too, elaborates Bacon. "If you can follow direction by command and do what you're told without thinking about it, you're ready to receive instruction. You're ready to learn something when you can give someone your undivided attention." And why compulsory band? Bacon says that, not only does it fulfill the state's requirements for art classes, but it also allows students to qualify for college band scholarships. He expects 90% of his graduating classes will go to college, 70% on scholarship.

On the academy's third floor, Donna Fournier is teaching the history of the Cold War to 30 sophomores. She taught five of the students when they were sixth graders at Hedges Elementary. They're doing markedly better now, reports the 30-year teacher and 23-year Naval Reservist. "Children crave order in their lives," she says. "The Academy provides structure, order, and discipline so they can have internal peace. They can get their act together."

NEW STEPS. In two first-floor Junior ROTC Leadership Classrooms, one class learns how to read military maps. Another plays a team-building game. A ball is passed from person to person without letting the "enemy" see it.

"I didn't want to go [to the school] because I thought the drills and ROTC classes would be a waste of time," confesses freshman Adrianna Perfecto, l5. "I thought it was going to be hard. It is hard, but it's also fun. Drilling is learning all kinds of new steps--like a new dance. You have to keep the rhythm."

Victor Robinson has certainly learned new steps. In December, when the Robinsons moved to a new home, Victor contacted the movers and ordered and packed the boxes. "He's got a lot more confidence," his mother says.

And what about his fear of getting yelled at? "I did get yelled at freshman year, when I made mistakes," he admits. "Now they still yell, but it doesn't get to me. I learn from my mistakes and move on."

Palmer writes about education issues for BusinessWeek from Chicago. This year her older son was enrolled in a university Army ROTC program five blocks from Bronzeville Academy.

Edited by George Foy

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